“We can’t afford four more years!” “Anything to get him out of office!” “It’s about defeating the president!”
I’m talking about the Republican outcry this year, right? Actually, I’m not, I’m talking about the Democratic outcry in 2004. In case you didn’t notice, both times, these outcries led to electoral defeat in the race for President.
By 2010, I felt pretty strongly that Mitt Romney’s ascendance to the Republican presidential nomination was a fait accompli. By 2011, this feeling was supported as such potential front-runners as Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie and, yes, even Sarah Palin gradually withdrew interest in the job. And right there and then, I told politico friends of mine that Obama would likely be re-elected in 2012. When asked why, I answered the same way every time: “Romney will win the Republican primary and there will be no enthusiasm for him going forward, only enthusiasm to find the ‘safe’ candidate to defeat the incumbent. And that’s not going to work.” Lo and behold, it didn’t.
Primary voters do sometimes fall for this logic. Romney certainly didn’t have a shortage of Republican opponents with enthusiastic bases while commentators generally noted the “enthusiasm gap” that he possessed. Such was the news of this that The Daily Show even did a skit from which 90% of the humor derivation was the principle that it wasn’t odd to imagine someone campaigning for Romney, but it was completely alien to imagine anyone being enthusiastic about it.
“Fringe” candidates such as Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum had (and have) cores of supporters that were (and are) greatly devoted to them but it didn’t (and doesn’t) translate to the primary ballot box. Obviously, there are numerous reasons for this besides the “safe” factor, but there’s no denying the groundswell of “we have to defeat the president” that underwrote some of the Romney primary vote. Somewhere along the way, “let’s find a candidate we support regardless of opponent” got lost.
For a quick exercise of this practice, go to your social media network of choice and visit the statuses/tweets/posts from your Republican friends. Find one person whose primary expression is that of disappointment over what they believe America lost by not having Romney as president without once mentioning Obama. Then send it to me because I haven’t seen it.
It reminds me of sitting in a house with my American friends in 2004 watching the Presidential election and hearing the lamentations of “four more years” with Bush. I silently waited for someone to say “it’s a shame that John Kerry won’t get to be President.” When it never came, it occurred to me that it was easy to understand why the Democrats didn’t persuade enough swing voters to come over to their side. The expression “the devil you know over the devil you don’t” didn’t happen by accident: elections are about more than about convincing people the other side is the devil. America’s Democrats found out the hard way in 2004. The Republicans are mulling that lesson today.
Lost in the usual presidential headlines is the vote total of third party candidates, which remains a far cry from the Ross Perot salad days.
In 1992, Perot alone marshalled nearly 20 million votes and the overall third-party vote dwindled to nearly 10 million in ’96. Then came Ralph Nader. America hasn’t cracked two million votes for third party candidates since.
I’ve been reading Jonathan Sterne’s MP: Meaning of a Format (more on that in my next blog entry) and in it, he cites a very powerful quotation from Warren Weaver’s introduction to The Mathematical Theory of Communication: “Information is a measure of one’s freedom of choice when one selects a message.” In the strictest information theory terms, this has rather banal mathematical implications (1 and 2 has three exponential possibilities amongst them, 1, 2 and 3 has six, etc.). However, it’s also led me to consider that information theory is perhaps the best lens with which to understand how the electoral system can (and usually does) limit the scope of conversational possibility in politics.
Supporters of third-party candidates usually rail on the unfairness of ballot access, debate access, the tendency to reduce voting to a “lesser of two evils” practice, but stepping outside of that, does one necessarily have to disagree with Obama’s potential policies to see the loss here? What really matters it that the exponential possiblities of discussion remains incredibly rigid.
And voters have lashed out at this in other ways: three states supported regulatory measures to legalize marijuana. Two others voted to approve same-sex marriage. Of course, many suspect that most Democrats favour these things and Obama has come out and said as much for the latter. However, issues such as drug regulation and marriage rights were noticably dimmed during the actual election; swapped out for small talk over whether Obama used the word “terrorism” properly or other such technicalities.
By framing the discontent with two-party focus as an information theory problem, rather than as a fair access problem, I think we gain a greater understanding of what is lost. I don’t want to get too mathematical about it, but there needs to be a reframing of the electoral process as a chance to discuss issues robustly, especially in America, where the process is long and cumbersome. State-run ballots miss the point: they establish a groundswell of attention but fail to establish a long-standing conversation about issues that third-party candidates are much more often willing to address, only to receive little to no audience.
The first possible solution is election reform. It’s already clear that the “lesser of two evils” approach doesn’t lead parties to select their best candidates, so why not use that as a premise to open up discussion on various forms of runoff voting, reforming the primary system or fixing debate moderation and access. Will such discussions put a third party into power? Maybe not, but is that the larger point at stake?
It doesn’t interest me because I’m upset at any one given election result. It interests me because of how little we talked about along the way.
I like my job a lot. My students do good things and have taken their organizations a long way from where they were when I started. I got more reaffirmation of that recently.
My GSTV students notched two CBI Award nominations this year as well as a Pinnacle Award nomination for its website. Following up on that, The Signal launched a new website and celebrated this by winning a “Best of Show” award (and an additional category placement) in its category for the first time. Not too shabby for a stolen issue.
In the end, the best reason to go to CBI and CMA/ACP is share with and learn from the students. Oh, and all these papers…:
Staying up to watch an election is fun, but I’ll take staying up in my pajamas and critiquing papers until three in the morning every day and twice on Sunday if there was a logistical way to make that fit my career. Probably isn’t, but such is life.